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Innocence behind bars: The fate of Egypt’s minors at the mercy of criminal and military courts

Aser has been waiting for a miracle as he lives out a nightmare behind bars among criminals and dangerous convicts since he was arrested on January 12, 2016 at dawn.

Before that cold winter’s day in 2016, Aser Zahr Eddin’s life was divided between school, painting and playing handball with a well-known sporting club’s under-17 team. Everything ended when security forces burst into his parents’ home in the Giza neighborhood of of Faisal when he was 15 years old.

Aser’s family did know anything about what had happened to him until 33 days after he had “disappeared,” as his name was placed on the list of terrorists in Egypt, according to what Aser later said in the investigations with the prosecution.

His trial is currently playing out before the Giza Misdemeanors Court’s terrorism circuit. He moves between the courthouse and the Giza central prison, inside the Central Security Forces training camp in the desert of 6th of October City, northwest of Cairo. He is charged with joining a terrorist organization,  which is a violation of the child law, according to his lawyer Mokhtar Mounir, who works at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression.

Aser’s life behind bars and his trial is similar to the condition of nearly 3,200 minors, all of whom are under 18 years old and have been imprisoned by Egyptian authorities since former president Mohamed Morsi was ousted on June 30, 2013. They have been imprisoned with adults, and some were subjected to torture and mistreatment, according to a report published by the Egyptian Coordination of Rights and Freedoms in August 2015.

The minors behind bars in Egypt pay the price for a loophole in the child law, which sets out the conditions for the detention of children. Per the loophole, the prosecution can transfer juveniles to criminal courts if at least one person over 18 years old participated in the charge under investigation.

The detention of minors, however, violates several legal frameworks, the first of which is article 119 of the law in which the loophole originates. According to the child law, the temporary incarceration of a child under 15 years old is prohibited. “A child who has not reached fifteen years of age shall not be placed in temporary custody,” the law states. “The Public Prosecution may place him in one of the observation centers, for a period not exceeding one week, and shall make him available upon each request if the circumstances of the case necessitate keeping him in custody. However, the period for keeping the child in custody shall not exceed one week unless the court decides to extend the period according to the regulations for temporary custody as stipulated in the Criminal Procedure Code.”

Article 80 of Egypt’s Constitution also disallows the practice, in that it mandates that the government must set up a separate judicial system for minors, provided they are detained in suitable spaces and separated from adults. In 1990, Egypt also ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which stipulates in article 37 that “No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.

A judge at an Egyptian criminal court who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity says that the “loophole places the trial of a child before criminal courts or their transfer to a juvenile court at a judge’s discretion.”

But the same law— according to the judge— “gives the court the right to examine the child’s circumstances from all angles before it issues a sentence. And it can call in experts as it sees fit. It can also refuse to issue a ruling due to not having proper jurisdiction, choose to transfer the case to an juvenile court, or release the child to their parents.”

The judge’s opinion is supported by the innocent verdicts that criminal courts have issued to minors, including the verdict issued by the head of terrorism circuit 15 led by judge Shaaban al-Shami to release the child Ammar Alaa Hasan to his family. Ammar was put behind bars in January 2016 and remained under temporary incarceration until he was found innocent on June 4, 2017 of charges of protesting, joining a terrorist organization and possession of explosives.

For over four months, Mada Masr followed 35 cases of minors who have appeared before criminal and military courts, as well as met over 10 minors who have finished serving criminal sentences of between one to three years inside prisons intended for adults, a violation of article 141 of the child law, which mandates that they should be incarcerated in a space specifically designed for minors, which is the penal institution in Al-Marg.

The ages of the minors ranged from 14 to 17 years old, while their sentences ranged from three to ten years. Most of them spent periods in temporary detention – from 900 to 1500 days – before they received a sentence. Three of five minors standing before military courts were found innocent. At the close of August, another minor had completed his full three-year sentence.

Among the minors Mada Masr tracked, three from the Minya governorate were handed death sentences, before the sentences were annulled and they were granted a retrial. Aser was one of these three handed a death sentence. He was presented to the prosecution for the first time on February 13, 2016, but his lawyer says the interrogation occurred without the presence of legal consul. Aser spends his time between investigation rooms at the State Security Prosecution and his place of detention at the Central Giza Prison.

Aser’s lawyer submitted a request that his client undergo a forensics examination to verify that he had been tortured and to have Aser transferred to a correctional facility, in accordance with the child law. However, the prosecution did not grant the request.

Aser’s parents did not know what was happening to their son and kept hoping he would be released. They were surprised to learn that he had been transferred in October 2016 to the Giza Criminal Court’s terrorism circuit headed by judge Nagi Shehata, who has issued 204 death sentences and 274 life sentences since he became president of the circuit in December 2013. The Court of Cassation has annulled some of these sentences and decided to retry the defendants.

Aser and the other defendants are being tried in Case 45/2016 by the Supreme State Security Prosecution. The trial’s proceedings are conducted in near secrecy, a violation of article 268 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which stipulates that the sessions of the trial should be public.

But the sessions of the trial are held inside the Police Academy, in the desert of New Cairo, east of Cairo, where the lecture halls have been turned into courtrooms. Here, the defendants are held in a soundproof glass cage, and judge Shehata has barred anyone but the defendents’ lawyers from attending the sessions, meaning both journalists and the families are absent.

The court did not adhere to the exception in article 122 of the child law, which stipulates that a minor may be tried before a criminal or state security court if he or she is over 15 years old when the crime was committed. This does not apply to Aser, as he turned 15 while in detention.

The violations in Aser’s case did not end there. Mounir, his lawyer, tells Mada Masr that Aser’s name was placed on the list of terrorists and terrorist entities while he was preparing for the final exams of the second year of high school. The lawyer, who was preparing a defense memo before the hearing sessions in July 2017, was not informed. The verdict was published in the Official Egyptian Gazette and dated May 29, 2017, months after the court issued the verdict in October 2016.

To place an individual on the list of terrorist entities, according to anti-terrorism law issued by president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in February 2015, results in a “travel ban and high alert for arrival, the confiscation or revocation of one’s passport, or the refusal to issue a new one, as well as the loss of the condition of good reputation necessary for jobs, public positions or prosecution positions.”

Charges of terrorism en masse

Since July 2013, nearly 60,000 Egyptians have been arrested and detained, according to the report “There is room for everyone” published by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, Egyptian authorities have neither confirmed nor denied this number.

Minors have not been safe from the severity of political polarization since 2011, according to Mohamed Ahmed, the head of the legal unit in the Egyptian Coalition on Children’s Rights. After Morsi was ousted in 2013, the scope of arbitrary arrests broadened to include minors. They were arrested for the sheer coincidence that they were walking near areas where protesters were marching. “The Interior Ministry did not differentiate between a protester and a non-protester, and therefore many were arrested on their way home or to attend tutoring lessons,” Ahmed says.

Ahmed thinks that the political and media climate has influenced the courts. “Courts have been presented the police and prosecution’s investigation documents, and have not been willing to give children special consideration or look into their condition, given that they could have been victims or politically exploited.

On Saturday, July 15, 2017, inside the criminal court building that sits on Alexandria’s corniche, the Montazah Criminal Court adjourned the trial of four minors to November 2017 because of the absence of a judge. The parents of the four minors were disappointed by the adjournment, as they had hoped the court date would bring an end to “three years of torture” since the case began on January 3, 2014.

Two days after he turned 18, MA was arrested on Friday afternoon January 3, 2014, as security forces were dispersing by Muslim Brotherhood supporters in the Alexandria neighborhood of Montazah. MA was on his way home from a football match when he was arrested, according to his father and his lawyer. Three other children passing through the same area were also arrested on January 3: HN and AY, who were born on January 1, 1996, and MO, who was born in 1998. MO was later released, when his name was included in a presidential pardon issued in June 23, 2017.

Along with nine others, MA, HN, AY and MO faced a long list of charges including “disrupting public peace and security, joining a banned terrorist organization, forming roadblocks, protesting without permission, carrying out acts of violence, intimidating citizens, vandalizing public property,” according to the case files of the Montazah Police Department and first administrative area of the Montazah prosecution, copies of which Mada Masr acquired.

After the children had been detained in a juvenile care facility in Alexandria Kom al-Dekka Prison for five months, the prison administration decided to transfer them and 44 other minors on June 4, 2015 to the Al-Marg correctional facility, according to their families.

The children objected to the decision to transfer them, as the correctional facility had a notorious reputation and their trial was taking place in Alexandria, which would render travel from Cairo to Alexandria for each trial session meaningless, the parents of three of childen told Mada Masr at a meeting in Alexandria.

In September 2017, AK turned 21. Many of his peers were finishing their undergraduate studies. But AK had been arrested before he turned 17.

The arrest came when he was with his uncle at the home of a family friends, his mother, a lawyer in Alexandria, tells Mada Masr. At the time, AK was second-year high school student. He was able to complete his high school diploma, despite the detention conditions and transfers between Kom al-Dekka Prison, the correctional facility in Al-Marg, Borg al-Arab Prison and the maximum security Tora Prison, where he is currently being held.

AK divided his high school subjects over two years. In 2015, he finished the courses a student would finish in their second year, and then divided the last five subjects. He finished three in 2016 and two in 2017. He passed all of them.

AK had hoped to study engineering, but his dream has dissipated inside prison, after his mother failed to find a private university which would have allowed him to sit for exams while in detention. In the end, he joined the faculty of commerce at the Modern Academy in Maadi.

AK was born on September 30, 1997. Along with MA, HN, AY and MO, he had objecting to being transferred from Alexandria’s Kom al-Dekka Prison.

AK was charged with joining a banned group and was tried in the Case 101/2014 by the Amreya Second Administrative Court. Eleven months after he was detained, he was released. But he found himself accused in another case. The time the charges were for inciting riots and harassing police officers (Case 2580/2014 under the Attareen Criminal Court).

The charge ultimately stemmed from the objection to being transferred from Kom al-Dekka Prison. After two children protested the prosecution’s decision, 20 minors, including AK, HN, AY, MO and MA, were accused of inciting riots and harassing police on the job. The case was taken up by the criminal court of Alexandria, and they were sentenced to three years in prison on March 17, 2016.

AK served the whole sentence. He has spent three years in prison since June 2014. He was supposed to be released on June 25, 2017, but he was surprised to learn he was a defendant in a more serious case than the previous two. This time he was to stand before a military court on charges of joining a terrorist group aiming to undermine the state.

AK was not the only minor facing a military trial. There have been at least 86 minors among the 7,420 Egyptian citizens who have been convicted by military courts since October 2014, according to Human Rights Watch.

The trials of minors before military courts has increased since Sisi issued a law on October 27, 2014 which allowed anyone who attacked a state institution to be tried before a military court and was meant to be in force for two years.

The law, which faced widespread criticism from rights organizations, put all public institutions, such as electricity stations, gas lines, oil wells, railroads and highway networks, under the authority of the Armed Forces. Anyone who was charged with attacking these institutions would thus have to stand before a military court. After the law elapsed in 2016, the government asked Parliament to extend it for two more years. However, Parliament changed course and decided to extend the law for five years in August 2016.

On August 25, 16-year-old Seif Osama Shousha finished a three-year sentence, which had been handed down to him in addition to a LE50,000 fine by the Ismailia Military Criminal Court.

The details of that case (Case 359/2014) go back to August 3, 2014. Seif, who was born on November 10, 1998, was arrested in the Damietta Governorate, on Saidi Street. He was returning home after a celebration with friends for passing the third year of middle school with a 93 percent mark.

“It seems that there was a protest on the street, and police forces were spread out everywhere,” his father tells Mada Masr. “After his arrest, he was assaulted by police forces, until his clothes were soaked with blood.”

Security forces held Seif inside the New Damietta Police Station, accusing him of protesting without permission, attacking government institutions and obstructing roads.

On the morning of his arrest, Seif took an advanced placement entrance examination for a military high school, his father says. But the next day, Seif was presented to the prosecution with bloodsoaked clothes and bruises on his face.

“The prosecutor did not care for all of this and decided to detain him for 15 days pending investigations,” Seif’s father says. “Later, his detention was renewed by the prosecution nine times, each for 15 days, before the case was referred to a military court.” Mada Masr was not able to confirm the father’s statement that the prosecutor ignored his son’s injuries.

In the second month of Seif’s time behind bars, the school year began. And 11 days after the school year’s commencement, he was suspended due to his absence.

Seif spent the first days of his detention at the New Damietta Police Station. He then spent 41 days at the Kafr Saad Police Station, followed by 14 months at the Faraskur police center in Damietta. None of these holding centers are designed to detain minors.

Seif was 17 when he was sentenced. He was transferred to Al-Marg correctional facility where he spent the next year, until he turned 18, at which point he was sent to Gamasa Prison in the Daqahlia Governorate.

During his detention inside the Faraskur police center, he insisted on completing his studies and passed his first year of high school. Later, during his time at the Al-Marg correction facility, he was able to pass his second year of high school. His father decided to postpone work on study for his final year until his release. With the date of his release approaching, his father booked intensive tutoring sessions, so he could start as soon as he was released.

Mada Masr has tried to contact the National Council For Childhood and Motherhood throughout the period the investigation was conducted but has not received any response to a request to meet Dr Maisa Shawky, the vice minister of health and population and the general supervisor of the council. The council also did not reply to questions emailed to Sabry Othman, a consultant with the council.

Margaret Azer, a member of Parliament’s Human Rights Committee, tells Mada Masr that she refuses to accept that there is a loophole in Egypt’s child law, emphasizing that the legislation regarding the trial of minors before criminal courts does not need to be altered.

Azer instead dismissed criticism of the law, describing it as the “attempts of organizations funded from abroad to read too much into laws for unpatriotic purposes.” She stated that Parliament routinely looks into the state of all prisoners in Egypt, including minors charged in criminal cases, to examine their situations according to the law and the Constitution.

“The terrorism and security situation necessitates the support of the police and the military,” Azer said.

Minors in Egypt have faced legal violations and worsening detention conditions over the last three years, all of which have contradicted the legal provisions of the child law. These violations have robbed hundreds of their futures, including Aser, who has now been in temporary detention for two years. He awaits with anticipation a decision on his fate before the Giza Criminal Court’s terrorism circuit. Aser’s family say they hope the judge considers him as a minor who was not yet 15 years old when the crime was committed, rather than as a criminal whose name has been placed on the terrorist list.

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